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Attorney General Investigating Group Handling Columbia Cash

By Jeff Mays | November 6, 2011 5:18pm
State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
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New York State Attorney General's Office

HARLEM—State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has launched an investigation into the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, the group charged with distributing $150 million in funds from Columbia University's community benefit agreement with West Harlem.

Schneiderman issued a subpoena Friday requesting records from the organization, according to a source who asked not to be named. DNAinfo reported last week that the group has spent more on consultants, approximately $400,000, than it has on programming, approximately $300,000, for a city-run summer youth jobs program.

Harlem congressional candidate Vince Morgan asked for an audit of the group, calling the disbursement of funds illegal because the group has not finalized its non-profit status.

A rendering of Columbia University's Manhattanville campus expansion on West 130th Street would create a public plaza.
A rendering of Columbia University's Manhattanville campus expansion on West 130th Street would create a public plaza.
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Columbia University
Morgan said the investigation is needed.

"They have already spent almost $1 million with no accountability. We can't wait until they get to $10 million," said Morgan.

In the 2-1/2 years since the benefits agreement was signed, the WHLDC has not held a public meeting, set up a web site, or established a headquarters. Columbia has given the group $3.55 million dollars.

Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the AG's office, declined comment.

A growing number of officials, including Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who also has a staff representative on the board, have questioned the group's management, DNAinfo reported last week. State Sen. Bill Perkins resigned his seat on the board last year citing a lack of transparency.

Congressman Charles Rangel, City Councilman Robert Jackson and Assemblymen Keith Wright also have staff representatives on the board. None have criticized the group. Wright said he believed there was no "malfeasance," just "community people trying to do the right thing." However, he was not in favor of the group using the money to fund city programs.

The Department of Youth and Community Development has also approached the group with a $7 million multi-year proposal to fund Harlem after school programs. WHLDC chair Donald Notice said the board was not in favor of funding that program.

The benefits agreement is part of Columbia University's $6.4 billion Manhattanville campus expansion. The WHLDC is responsible for giving away $76 million in cash and making sure Columbia delivers $30 million for construction of a new K-8 school in conjunction with Teachers College, $20 million for an affordable housing fund and $20 million in in-kind benefits.

Notice did not respond to a request for comment.

In earlier interviews, he said the board was in the process of finalizing its non-profit status, hiring an executive director, securing a lease for a headquarters and issuing guidelines on the disbursement of funds. He said he hoped to have those things accomplished by the end of the year.

Morgan said it's too little, too late.

"We have to protect the rest of that money," said Morgan.